Propaganda – Best of the Year 2007 Part III: Faster than a rubber bullet
This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is the third part of my look back at the graphic novels I enjoyed the most in 2007. So far I’ve talked about some of the great books which narrowly missed out on making the final five and reviewed Shooting War, then yesterday I covered Fluffy and Fell: Feral City. Today we move to the final two of my top five graphic novels for the year with two very different graphic novels, one reviving the most iconic superhero in the world, the other dealing with emotional, disturbing events in the lives of people in Israel, but both quite brilliant.
Written and illustrated by Rutu Modan
Koby Franco is a young man working a taxi in Tel Aviv, his life is a slacker’s mess, he lives with his Aunt and Uncle and co-owns the taxi with them. Life is nothing but a cycle of work and sleep, with seemingly very little else to fill it. He speaks to his sister rarely and his Dad not at all after an estrangement following his Mom’s death.
But this changes on the day he’s hired to taxi Numi, a female soldier. Suddenly he’s confronted with the possibility that his Dad’s just died in a recent suicide bombing. Numi’s own life is suddenly and intricately entwined with Koby’s as it becomes obvious that Koby’s father and Numi were lovers up until a few weeks ago when he disappeared. She needs Koby to give a DNA sample to prove the identity of an unidentified corpse from the blast, but Koby is angry and storms off.
(Numi and Koby don’t exactly hit it off at first in Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
But his interest and curiosity are piqued and he starts looking for his Dad on his own. Reluctantly he agrees to help Numi and the pair go on a road trip of sorts trying to discover the truth and, in doing so, come to realise that the man they are searching for has a far more complicated life than that of father or lover. By the end of the book Koby’s father’s fate is still uncertain, but his life and his secrets are slowly revealed until it seems that his non-appearance in the story contributes far more than his presence would have.
Strangely for me, the first thing to mark this book out as one to read was the sublime artwork. It’s immediately recognisable as European clean line but it’s one of the finest examples of the clean line style I’ve seen for years. It’s also a sublime mix of influences; with Hergé and Joost Swarte the most obvious. It’s the combination of simple foreground lines, a glorious, bright palette of colours in the foreground and most importantly, a subtle fade / wash effect on the backgrounds that gives every panel a slightly ethereal feel. I’m not an art fan generally, I’m far more interested in the writing. But this book warranted three separate readings, and at least one of these readings was purely concentrating on the artwork.
In Exit Wounds Modan has blended a very tender love story, a detective tale, a road trip of personal discovery and a meditation into love and loss into one fluent and moving book. But if you like your fiction complete with a tidy resolution you’re not about to find it here. There’s no traditional beginning, middle and end. Instead we’re visiting a moment in these character’s lives, observing their reactions to strange and unusual situations and then moving on. It’s a literary device rarely used in comics, but works spectacularly well in Exit Wounds.
(family arguments come head to head with the reality of suicide bombing and sudden, violent death in Exit Wounds, (c) Rutu Modan)
But one problem remains – if it’s this good, why hasn’t it been feted high and wide by the Guardian and other usual notable sources? It’s perfectly suited to join Maus, Palestine, Chris Ware, Persepolis and Fun Home as examples of literary Graphic Novels that cross over to real world success. But Exit Wounds hasn’t made the same critical inroads (although it has been highly lauded in comics circles).
The title probably has something to do with that. Call it Tel Aviv; A Love Story or something similar and the Guardian would have been all over it. A closer reading of the indicia shows that the title came from the translator; Noah Stollman. Modan should have ignored the suggestion. Someone who writes this well would surely have been able to give us something better than Exit Wounds, with its off-putting connotations of Hollywood shoot-em-ups.
But please, please, don’t be put off. Just because the Guardian hasn’t shouted about it means you get to impress your literary friends with your discovery. Go down to your local store and demand Exit Wounds.
All Star Superman
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
When I reviewed All Star Superman on the basis of just the first issue (back in February) I concluded it was probably one of the best treatments of Superman I’d ever read. After reading the collection, I’m possibly even more impressed.
Morrison has taken Superman; a dull, tired character (after all, how many great stories can you honestly get out of God – the Superhero?) and just simply breathes new, vibrant, incredible, original life into him. But he’s done this not by ditching all the complex continuity and all the bizarre ideas that other writers have tried to ignore or simply write out of history, but by embracing it all. All the Super-Pets, the multi-coloured Kryptonite, the strange villains, the complex and convoluted time travellers, the Fortress of Solitude and it’s half million ton key, time telescopes to contact once and future Supermen, Baby sun eaters fed by miniature suns created on cosmic anvils, Lois Lane as Superwoman, Jimmy Olsen the boy reporter and his signal watch – it’s all here in Morrison’s Superman and all fits into the mythos perfectly well, so great is Morrison’s skill at integrating classic and much loved yet slightly silly elements into a modern, relevant comic.
He’s taken everything iconic about the character and distilled it into his version, perfectly integrating decades of history, continuity and myth into a perfect reading experience.
From the very first page it’s obvious that this is very special. You’ll never see a better origin story than the first 4 panels of this book. It set the tone of the entire tale; perfectly concise, succinct and managing to tell a complicated tale in a very simple fashion.
(one of comics all-time great origins summed up in a few panels and still managing a nod to Moses in Morrison, Quitely and Grant’s All Star Superman, (c) DC)
But this isn’t all about Grant Morrison’s writing. His continuing collaboration with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant is a thing of artistic perfection. Their Superman is all about quiet power with enormous restraint, their Clark Kent is a completely believable clumsy human. Every character is perfectly realised and wonderfully drawn. Quitely may get all the glory but Grant’s inking and colouring produce a life and vibrancy rarely seen in comics and the whole book is awash in glorious, vivid colour.
There is so much going on in the book that a lot of it could pass you by on a first reading. This is where Morrison really earns his reputation of one of our greatest writers. His stories are superficially simple, fast and uncomplicated, but there is layer upon layer just waiting to be discovered. He writes every story in such a way to let you fill in the action. You don’t see the daring rescue, or the simple intervention to avoid some coming catastrophe, all we see is a before and after panel, it’s up to you to fill in the bits in between.
(even the world’s greatest superhero has his limits in All Star Superman, (c) DC)
Taken individually, the six issues here are shining exemplars of how to produce an old fashioned self contained comic. Every issue has enough to leave you gasping at the sheer enjoyment the comic provides. But throughout the book there is a larger story, and Lex Luthor is the key. In Morrison’s world Luthor is a perfect villain; evil, twisted and complicated. And it is Lex’s scheme to send Superman into the sun in issue 1 that reverberates throughout the book. This solar close encounter has effectively poisoned Superman. He finds out that he’s dying, Luthor has finally won. And this victory, this oncoming death informs everything in the book from that point onwards.
I’m not going to give anymore of the plot than that, because this really is one of those books that you deserve to pick up and be delighted by without knowing every little plot twist. Suffice it to say, you’re all in for a wonderful time.
It makes the grown up me feel the same way I did when the I did as a child reading Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men and the way the teenage me felt on reading Alan Moore’s Captain Britain or later, his Miracleman. And it fills me with the same excitement as I felt on first reading books like Sandman, Animal Man, Zenith, Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Planetary and any and all of the wonderful genre books of the last couple of decades. It’s instantly recognisable as a near perfect book, with Morrison, Quitely and Grant producing the most perfect Superman ever seen.